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Lasting impressions: Auburn's vintage signs are roadside attractions

Old time images greet generations of customers
By: Gus Thomson Journal Staff Writer
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The big, bold and splashy Lou La Bonte’s restaurant sign is a stylish throwback to a time when cars had fins, the road across Donner Summit was winding Highway 40 and you’d get change when you slapped down a $5 bill for a fill-up. The La Bonte’s sign has been lighting up the night sky near the Foresthill exit in Bowman for 54 years. It’s one of a handful remaining in the Auburn area that hearken back to a mid-century America in love with long road trips and the Americana that awaited the adventurous at the side of those roads. The La Bonte’s sign couldn’t be constructed today because of regulations on size alone. But like many others – including the Foothills Motel, which opened in 1954 – and the 1940s era Valencia Club in Penryn – the signs have become synonymous with a business’s ability to defy the odds and retain a part of its past. Because they were constructed before restrictive sign ordinances were established, they can stay as long as they remain the way they are, where they are, and don’t pose a public safety risk. “It’s part of the image,” said Judi La Bonte, whose father and mother founded the eatery in Weimar in 1946. La Bonte said with a laugh that the original sign at the Weimar gas station, restaurant and liquor store advised “Get gassed up at Lou La Bonte’s” then added “We mean Chevron.” When Interstate 80 roadwork took out the original building in the mid-1950s, La Bonte’s moved to its current Lincoln Way location and put up a new sign. The new sign added some visuals that today prove perplexing to visitors but made perfect sense in the mid-1950s. The cartoon of a man in a chef’s hat and the cocktail glass on the sign have to do with the restaurant and bar. But a smaller sign shows what appears to be a disoriented Heckyl & Jeckyl-style crow on skis toting a bottle and advertising liquor sales. “I guess my dad had quite an imagination,” La Bonte said. The black bird is actually a tribute to Bobbie, a mynah bird that served as the mascot for La Bonte’s and unofficial greeter. Bobbie had been trained to greet all female customers with a wolf whistle. When customers were leaving, the bird advised them to “Take a jug along.” At the Foothills Motel, several neon signs advertising the accommodation facility and adjoining bowling alley have been a prominent part of the Bowman landscape since the mid-1950s. In those days, it wasn’t unusual for the bar in the bowling alley to take drink orders and deliver them to the motel pool nearby. The dark wood paneling in the motel rooms has long been replaced but the signs remain. Perhaps the most imposing of the Foothills Motel symbols is the 45-foot-high sign towering above the landscape. It’s so high, manager Tami Wescott said, that when she uses it to give directions, visitors miss it because they’re not used to looking that far up. The Foothills Motel signs have been able to survive because of consistency in ownership – the same family-run business has owned the property since the late 1960s – and it’s independent of any chain that would have demanded to put its own signage up. The Valencia Club in Penryn originally served as a roadhouse in the 1940s along what was then Highway 40 and is now Taylor Road. Its majestic neon sign is now a roadside attraction in itself. Bartender Maggie Pennington noted that it isn’t unusual to see tourists outside the bar, snapping pictures of the distinctive sign. Borland Avenue’s Del & Joe’s Body Shop on Borland Avenue doesn’t get a stream of tourists. It’s even more off the beaten track. But the sign is a retro gem that is actually a little more modern than the 1950s. The entrance sign dates from the mid-60s but the original neon sign kept on getting lights broken so owner Bob Achilles said a retro sign was commissioned. It’s painted on wood and attached to the original metal signbox. Achilles, who has worked at Del & Joe’s since 1961 (the original owners were Del Stokley and Joe Merriman) said he doesn’t get any comments about the sign – other than from the people at the sign business across the street. “They tell me to get a new one,” Achilles said. Other signs with a retro flourish in the Auburn area include the neon display by three businesses at the Oddfellows’ Building at the corner of Highway 49 and Lincoln Way, the now-closed Corner Pub in Downtown Auburn and the twin California Club-Happy Hour neon array in Old Town. The State Theater sign is another more modern beauty. It’s a replica of the classic that graced the downtown movie house for several decades after being put up in the 1930s. The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at gust@goldcountrymedia.com.